COVID-19 anxiety and panic

Panic has become one of the reactions in the community to the recent spread of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19. Toilet paper and a number of food staples have disappeared from the supermarket shelves as certain people stockpile months of supplies. Even those not panicking may be feeling a lot of anxiety and growing stress.

Advice and even reassurance has been dished out by various government and medical agencies, but even that, when the various advices are contradictory, has been stressing some. This article will give some very useful tools and advice for personal destressing and clarity—tools and simple strategies you can practise numerous times through any day or night, for two minutes, or five or ten, that will make a big difference. But first, what is this anxiety gripping so many people?

Anxiety is fear and apprehension about unknown and imagined bad events in the future. The fearful future can be the next five minutes or the coming weeks and months. Medical stories and warnings are a classic bogeyman for creating fear in us. We have been conditioned to be pretty scared by fear-based campaigns for vaccination against many diseases, by AIDS prevention campaigns and even all the news and public health stories about the killer diseases, heart disease and cancer. Good campaigns many of them, but nevertheless, they try to get us to act by creating some fear.

So when a big, new virus scare emerges that may be worse that the familiar influenza, may become worse than all the SARS and Swine Flu type scares that have run through the world in our lifetimes, and the medical authorities acknowledge they know little about it and are giving (sometimes) conflicting advice, then conditions are ripe for fear, anxiety and panic.

Underlying it all is the realistic, existential fear of death. Fear of our own death, and sometimes worse, anxiety that a loved one might get it and die. We don’t necessarily admit to ourselves that fear of death is lurking in our unconscious, but there it is. In our saner moments we know that fear and panic don’t help anything. We know that being anxious and stressed doesn’t allow us to make the best decisions and be productive. But what do we do about it? How do we destress while doing all the practical, sensible things that need to be done in the face of the daily changing conditions?

This overview, followed by several very specific suggestions just might be a valuable resource you can put to work right away. In fact, though I didn’t know it at the time, my 2016 book Freedom from stress and anxiety might have been written for just this scenario.

Helpful strategies, thoughts and actions

(1) STARTING WITH the big one first, existential fear of death. We all will face both this fear and the reality of it sometime. It is written in our stars, written in the book of life. Living beings are born, grow, live in maturity for a time, decline in physical integrity, and DIE. You may or may not have had ocassions in your life to be hit hard by this realisation before; the death of a loved one, death of a public figure you loved, heaven-forbid—death of a child, or a life-threatening illness yourself. In that case you have emotional experience with this matter and are probably part way towards a philosophical understanding and acceptance of death-as-a-part-of-life. If you have been  fairly sheltered from such experiences then the bombardment of news about this pandemic might well push ‘fear of death’ into the forefront of your awareness. Now, like it or not, will be your time to confront your feelings and understandings about death. All I could say here is that millions have confronted this before you and the billions on the planet now will have to confront it soon enough. And it enriches and enlarges our lives to embrace that fear along with the deeper love and understanding of life it might bring. Little comfort, I know, but it is inevitable and far more real than many of the things we distract ourselves with much of the time. The one exercise that has reliably helped millions before with this issue is some kind of personal meditation practice. More on that in a moment.

(2) REGARDING PRACTICAL steps to reduce the risk of you and yours catching virus diseases, or spreading them, news bulletins and many websites have been promoting these constantly for weeks. Study them and practice them. It is all about hygiene; things like trying to only be in places where you can mostly keep a distance of about two metres between yourself and others; quit practices like shaking hands and hugging/kissing people other than perhaps those you live with; cough and sneeze in a careful and respectful-to-others manner. You can get all these tips and much more at good health websites. The Australian health department website,  is one place to start.

Now for personal practices that can build mental, emotional and spiritual resilience

(3) CONNECT TO NATURE. Let’s discuss this before getting to special meditation techniques. Everyone can sit and walk and listen and feel the power and relaxation of nature. Regardless of how busy you need to be in your business or other duties at present, take some minutes here and there to be in nature with all of your senses awake and active. Where? If you have a garden that is pleasing, start there. My garden is very small but a great source of joy as we created it all over the two and a half years we have been in this home. As I write bees are buzzing around the elyssium flowers that have beautifully spread themselves all over from their original little patch. I love to go out and gaze at the red and yellow flowers of several small-type grevillias that are planted as a sort of groundcover. An apple is growing nicely and training along a trellis as a green fence between driveway and house. As you can see, small things that are pleasing to the eye and nose. For the ears there are birds in our garden and nearby trees. This is also part of the concept of ‘Mindfulness’—to tune in fully to the here and now experience of your senses. And if you have a nice park nearby or a creek or river with walking track, don’t forget to go there. Don’t let a coronavirus stop you doing the best things in life. And real wilderness bush, mountain or beach: they are still there, more-or-less unaffected by all this. You can sit or walk, sing or dance there, and draw on their stillness and movement, beauty and peace.

(4) NOW, MENTAL BREATHING SPACE. How can you take little breaks in your day to let your mind and worries pause, and to recharge yourself? If you have ever attended yoga or meditation classes now is the time to remember the relaxation techniques, or how to meditate, and start doing it at home. I have always been puzzled at how some people seem to think that Yoga, for example, is something that you do in a class. Classes are fine, but isn’t their purpose to learn things that you take home and DO there? Don’t worry if you don’t remember exactly how the sequence goes, it will still be good. You will learn by practising what you recall and maybe adding your own twist. Go back to a class for more learning—I haven’t yet heard that they are closing down and in many you can keep distance from each other.
If you are someone who has never done any sort of meditation, the following three methods are for you; a kind of starter pack. Each is a practice you can do very nicely in about five minutes. There is no need when beginning to do the twenty, thirty or sixty minutes that some meditators do (or proudly tell you they do).

(4-i) BREATHING MEDITATION. It’s apt isn’t it?—COVID-19 is a respiratory disease affecting breathing, and various breathing practices may be a big part of the antidote. This, however is not really a breathing exercise; it is a mini-meditation with breathing as your main focus.
Sit yourself somewhere, in a straight backed chair (kitchen or office type chair), or sit or kneel on the floor with the help of cushions, if your knees, ankles etc allow.
* Observe your breath flowing in and out for four or five breaths. Then take a medium deep breath in — hold it a second — and let it out with complete relaxation. After a couple of normal breaths do that again. Feel the letting go of all tension with letting the breath go.
* Now do a sort of reverse exercise. That is, breathe out strongly, emptying your lungs as much as you easily can — then relax everything and let the air rush back in. After a couple of normal breaths do it again. Feel how the incoming breath comes in so effortlessly.
* Next, breathe evenly, but somewhat slowly. Not deep, not shallow—somewhere in between. If your normal breathing takes around two or three seconds to come in and similar to go out, now make it five, six or even eight seconds for IN and similar for OUT. Not so slow that it’s any strain or effort. An easy slowing down.Do this for about a minute to two minutes.
* You are nearly finished with instructions, but now for the main part. LET GO of all control of breathing. Stop trying to do anything and simply let your breath BE. Let it flow how it wants. If some breaths are quick or strong, fine. If it becomes slow, fine. If it becomes light and shallow, fine. Simply observe it, follow it with interest and curiosity. Notice whatever sensations or feelings there are, whatever sound, even mental images that arise. For how long? Up to you. The first parts of the practice probably took three or four minutes so you could stay with this last part for just one or two. If you wish you could stay with it much longer as a more deeply meditative practice.
**NOTE: of course there are other types of conscious breathing practices that people could teach you that are very good also.

(4-ii) WHOLE BODY LETTING GO. There are hundreds of ways of doing this type of practice. This is a short and sweet, effective variation.
* Sit similar to the previous practice. Bring attention to your arms and shoulders. Now, hunch up your shoulders, tensing them and make some tension/tightness right down your arms into your hands. Hold the muscle tightness one or two seconds, then let it go completely. Let your attention stay with the relaxing, ‘Letting go’ feeling in your hands, arms and shoulders for at least ten seconds.
* Now turn your attention to your feet and legs and go through a similar process. That is, tense the muscles in your feet, lower legs and upper legs — hold it — and let go. Let go completely. Stay with the feeling of letting go and relaxation for some seconds, ten or even twenty.
* Bring attention into your face. Close your eyes firmly, scrunching the muscles, and let other parts of face join the tightening up feeling. Mouth, cheeks, nose, forehead, for example. Hold it for one or two seconds, and let go completely. Feel a sort of smoothing out, softening feeling spreading through the eyes and face as everything lets go more and more. Stay with that for a little while.
* Now let your attention slowly drift down your body without any more physical scrunching up. Awareness in your neck. Feel it relaxing and letting go. Chest and upper back. Belly and mid and lower back. Let your awareness slowly and leisurely move through all those areas, bit by bit, inviting relaxation, but not really TRYING to make anything happen.
That’s it. That’s the whole practice. HOWEVER, if you can devote a little more time to it, then do the following. See if you can let your awareness spread out to encompass the whole body. Feel the same “letting go” feeling you had in arms, legs and face, all over the whole body. Your focus could even drift back to one part, like the arms, and then back to whole body. It is a five minute practice, but even better if you find it can go on for ten or more.

(4-iii) A WORD, WORDS OR CENTERING THOUGHT. Meditate on a word, a phrase or affirmation, or the thought embodied by that phrase. The list of possible phrases or affirmations to use is infinite. It could come from a religious or philosophical injunction that has always inspired you. It could be a simple thought to do with health, peace or wellbeing.
Some possibilities: (i) “I let go completely”  ((ii) “Peace and calm”  (iii) “I let myself feel peace and calm”  (iv) “I am here now”.
You might have learned a mantra you like from Yoga or Buddhist teaching. Use it. There may be a short Christian affirmation or prayer that is meaningful to you. Or similar from another religion or spiritual teaching. Or a nature-based affirmation.
Whatever your word or phrase, begin to repeat it mentally to yourself. Don’t hurry. Let it find its most natural rhythm. At some stage allow some pauses for silence between one repetition and the next. Don’t worry in the slightest if other thoughts intrude on your chosen phrase. They have their place. Let them come and go. Continue with your repeating phrase.
Let it vary in volume and tone as you go along. And here is something interesting to be curious about: can you notice whether is seems like YOU are saying the phrase, or are you listening to someone else saying it. Either way is fine. But it’s interesting, isn’t it?
After five minutes, or however long, have a bit of silent space after the last repetition, and finish your practice.

SO, methods (4-i), (4-ii) and (4-iii), above are a primer, a simple intro to meditation. If you decide to try one or all of them I wish you well. It will certainly help you with letting go of the tension and stress that comes with the anxiety of this global health pandemic. For this type of meditation to help it wants to be practised at a minimum of two times per day. Three, four or many more will be even more effective. For people in any sort of self-isolation, lockdown or quarantine, then they need things to occupy them. I cannot think of anything better than giving themselves a meditation retreat in this way. I am sure that if you did four sessions of five minutes for even a week you would soon find it easy to do a few sessions of ten, fifteen or twenty minutes. Welcome to the world of simple, health-giving meditation. Welcome even to the world of ‘Mindfulness’.